Review: Sports Talk by Colin McNairn

You don’t really have a choice over whether or not you like sports if you speak English. All bets are off, bad break, curveball, down to the wire, get the ball rolling, grandstanding, level playing field, take the bait, track record—expressions taken from sports are everywhere and everyday in English, so much so that we forget many of these clichés, idioms, and tropes even come from sports in the first place.

Take at the drop of a hat, or “without delay or good reason.” According to Colin McNairn in his new book, Sports Talk: How It Has Penetrated Our Everyday Language (FriesenPress, 2017):

The hat in the expression is likely of the kind that was frequently used, back in the 19th century, to signal the start of a race, a fight or other competition. The person charged with getting the contest started would, typically, doff his hat, hold it at arms-length, and then suddenly lower the straightened arm, hat in hand, in a downward sweeping motion, which would signal the official start.

Or did you realize that down to the wire, or “until the last possible moment,” comes from horse-racing? McNairn explains that the wire here refers to ones “strung above the finish line of North American racecourses so that, in a close race, it was easier for the track judge to determine which horse finished first.”

In Sports Talk, McNairn covers, blow-by-blow, a whopping 650 expressions derived from over 35 sports sports ranging from football to frisbee, with some history, trivia, anecdotes, and quotes on the sidelines. The author—whose first book, In A Manner of Speaking, I also reviewed—kindly sent me a copy.

The winner, as McNairn tallies the sports that have contributed the most sayings to American English, is baseball. Here are just some of the expressions we owe to America’s pastime: home field advantage, seventh-inning stretch, play ball, inside baseball, good/bad call, cover all the bases, strike out, switch hitter, step up to the plate, throw a curve, screwball, rhubarb, home run, out of left field, grand slam, off the bat, three strikes, swing and a miss, touch base, ballpark figure, ground rules, double header, and big league.

While we use many of them as metaphors outside of the ballpark, most of these expressions are still recognizably from baseball–unlike for many of the terms we owe to the runners-up, horse-racing and boxing. Horse-racing gives us set the pace, out of the gates, in the running, by the nose, running mate, dead heat, in the home stretch, and even give-and-take, which “goes back to a British racing tradition in which a prize so named was awarded in a race where horses above a standard height had to carry more weight and those below the standard could carry less. To win hands down also surprised me as rooted on the track: “That position reflects the body language of a jockey who has loosened his grip on the reins, lowering his hands in the process, as he approaches the finish line fully confident of victory given his horse’s lead.” So, too, across the board, from betting culture:

Someone without the benefit of a tip, but who has a favourite horse firmly in mind might decide to place multiple bets on the horse, each in the same amount, to cover all three top finishes: win, place and show. He would then be wagering ‘across the board.’ The board in question is a blackboard on which bookmakers used to chalk up the prevailing odds on each horse before a race.

Boxing also landed many lexical punches, which we can roll with or pull: duck and dive, punch above one’s weight, hit below the belt, knockout, the gloves are off, boxer shorts, go toe-to-toe, on the ropes, in the corner, and, most likely, saved by the bell: “Before the count is up, a decked fighter might be ‘saved by the bell’ that was used to signal the end of each round of a boxing match and the beginning of a between-round break for both fighters.”

Horse-racing and boxing have declined in popularity over the last century or so, which explains why we don’t immediately recognize many of these expressions as so derived, but their language is definitely still in the game.

McNairn observes that it’s a younger sport, American football, that is especially influencing our language today, notably in business and politics: quarterback, blindsided, punt, move the yardsticks, run interference, playbook, and Hail Mary pass. I’d be quite curious to encounter American English 50 years from now to learn how many gridiron expressions have endured—and how much we still associate them with the sport.

Sports Talk is a fun and light read. I’m not a sports lover, but I enjoyed picking it up and reading a few paragraphs while I was on waiting for a train or riding the bus. It’s organized by sport, with those with large lexical contributions like baseball earning their own chapters, while basketball, for instance, is grouped under “Other Spectator Sports” and tennis in “Stick or Racket Sports.” I found this structure effective, though I did wish chapters focused on individual sports were broken down into subsections rather than proceeding narratively.

Nevertheless, I appreciate how comprehensive McNairn is, even dedicating an entire chapter to cricket—and doing his damnedest to explain this complex game, and its equally complex terminology, to my an inexperienced and unfamiliar reader like myself. Speaking of explanations, McNairn both clearly described the literal use of an expression in a sport and defined its figurative extension. I also appreciate McNairn’s sensitivity to folk etymology and the high level of uncertainty in the business (sport?) of word and phrase origins, taking pains to debunk any myths or qualify claims where the ultimate source of some expression is unknown. As a word researcher, though, I would like to have seen more information on the first evidence for many terms, both in the original and metaphorical contexts.

Fans of sports and language will enjoy this book, and I think it also have value for English-language learners curious about idioms. And thanks to a very helpful index, Sports Talk has, er, made the cut on my reference shelf.

SPORTS TALK
By Colin McNairn
282 pp. FriesenPress. US $13.49.

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